The Ugandan government has scrapped needy students' allowances in Makerere University as a first step towards introducing full-cost tuition and boarding fees in higher education, writes Wachira Kigotho in Nairobi.
Some 3,000 students benefit from the scheme, which gives a monthly allowance of USh30,000 (Pounds 17.60). The government has also told the university that 2,092 first-year students may soon have to pay board and lodging.
The needy students' scheme started in 1990 after general student allowances were abolished as part of the government's economic restructuring in response to the World Bank. In 1994, the government scrapped the scheme but continued paying the allowances following student protests and riots.
Government funding of Makerere and Mbarara University of Science and Technology has been declining since 1989 when an international taskforce led by Thomas Eisemon from McGill University recommended abolishing student subsidies.
In his report on strengthening Uganda's policy on university development, Dr Eisemon argued that providing board and lodging had little to do with instruction or with a public university's other missions. However, board and lodging is an entrenched tradition in Uganda as in other countries in eastern and central Africa.
Student welfare costs are at present subsidised by the state which allocates grants to public universities. Such subsidies include board and lodging in addition to books and instructional materials.
In some sub-Saharan countries students are also provided with clothing and travel allowances. Attempts to abolish the subsidies by cash-strapped governments usually trigger student protests and riots forcing the universities to close temporarily as happened in Makerere in 1994.
So far the government has ignored student protests and has said it will cut accommodation subsidies for 1,200 non-residential students. Last month it gave the university funds to cover only 400 students. Before then it had paid USh2 billion for the non-residential accommodation of all students at Makerere University.
A World Bank survey showed that students in the many faculties were mostly from professional families.
The study also showed that to obtain entry to Makerere, many students repeat or take private tuition in A levels. "These are provisions that economically disadvantaged families cannot afford to make for their children," says David Court, a senior research fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation.
Even so, the government has yet to find a formula for identifying the real deserving cases for aid.
Attempts by the university and the local councils to employ students failed when students learned that they were to do manual labour in exchange for board and lodging. The students saw manual labour as menial and below their dignity.
In addition to meeting the entire tuition of the students, welfare costs are also subsidised in the form of grants to keep student hostels and catering facilities running. Inflation and university expansion, however, have eroded budgets, resulting in overcrowding in hostels and poor food.
In an attempt to improve matters the government allocated farms to Makerere and Mbarara to grow their own food and keep livestock. So far Makerere is producing its own bakery products.
The World Bank has proposed the introduction of student loans like those in Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.